For the first time in 40 years, the Oregon job will not be handed down to someone on the staff. The Ducks didn't announce a change until late Tuesday night -- Oregon AD Rob Mullens didn't begin his press conference until 11:30 p.m. ET -- and in the hours since we've had more time to reach out to sources and get a better sense where this search is heading.
Before we get any further, understand that Mullens is on the College Football Playoff selection committee. This means he spent the better part of two days holed up in a hotel in Dallas surrounded by several power-brokers in the profession. The Ducks aren't exactly starting from square one here. Sources tell us that Mullens & Parker Executive search firm have been actively working the phones gauging interest in the job and input on candidates.
Mullens's presence will also be required back in Dallas on Friday and Saturday, so don't expect any announcements until Mullens can get through this weekend. The timing is actually convenient on both sides of this equation because, as Mullens will be pre-occupied with other duties, so, too, will a number of Oregon's candidates.
We continue to hear P.J. Fleck and Lincoln Riley are coaches Oregon had on their initial list. The Oregon job is different from many major programs in that the Ducks' national recruiting footprint and lack of deep history requires a certain energy and a certain vibe to appeal to recruits. Fleck oozes energy, and his Western Michigan team has bullied through the MAC this season, needing one more win to reach the Cotton Bowl after going 1-11 just two years prior. Riley fits the mold of what Kelly and Helfrich were before landing the Oregon head-job: young, whip smart and a top-notch creative play-caller.
Fleck plays in the MAC Championship on Friday night; Riley and Oklahoma face Oklahoma State in a critically important Bedlam game on Saturday.
Two other candidates sources told FootballScoop Oregon has discussed will face each other in Saturday's SEC Championship: Lane Kiffin and Jim McElwain.
Like Riley, Kiffin is a young, smart offensive innovator. Kiffin has head coaching experience, and the last three years under Nick Saban have served as, in the words of how Tom Herman described a similar apprenticeship under Urban Meyer, "head coaching school."
As for McElwain, while many within the industry express the fit isn't as glove-like as the candidates mentioned above, sources told FootballScoop that there are some at Oregon who believe he could be the best candidate. A Montana native, McElwain played quarterback at Eastern Washington and spent the majority of his career out west. When word broke of then Colorado State head coach Jim McElwain being Jeremy Foley's target at Florida, Scott said at the time that McElwain truly was not a cultural fit in Florida and would be far better suited out West (in Montana, Washington or Oregon).
It's easy to see why McElwain may have interest in Oregon: though he's managed to win two SEC East championships despite fighting through considerable attrition on offense, it's hard to argue the McElwain-Florida relationship has clicked the way Steve Spurrier and Meyer did in Gainesville or, in a more pertinent example, the way Jimbo Fisher has at Florida State. Florida has also changed ADs since McElwain's hiring, so pulling the ripcord after 18 wins and two trips to Atlanta in as many seasons for a fresh start closer to home has a certain appeal for McElwain.
We spoke with several coaches this morning about McElwain as a fit at Oregon. Not one of them believes Jimmy Mac fits what Oregon currently is but one added, in firing Helf, Mullens is signaling he's willing change who Oregon is for who he believes is the right candidate. Worth remembering is that in addition to the enormous buyout Florida is paying to Colorado State related to Mac, Oregon would now owe Florida approximately $3.2 million to buyout Mac's current contract. If Oregon decides he's their guy, $3.2 million is not super-relevant to them; but coaches we spoke with frequently mentioned that Pac-12 coaches would have a field day using Mac's multiple hops (CSU to UF to Oregon) against him in recruiting.
Another name sources expressed to FootballScoop that could be a match for Oregon is Notre Dame's Brian Kelly. Though reports emerged over the weekend that Kelly was interested elsewhere were met with extreme denials from both sides, we continue to hear Notre Dame would be willing to negotiate an exit from the 6-year extension Kelly signed just last year should the right opportunity arise.
Other names mentioned the most often from coaches include Bryan Harsin, Beau Baldwin, Scott Frost and Dana Holgorsen.
Harsin, Baldwin and Frost each possess obvious regional ties: Harsin is 31-8 at Boise State; Baldwin is 83-31 at Eastern Washington; and Frost was a key staff member for the Kelly and Helfrich glory years in Eugene. Each of the men are young, offense-first coaches.
None of the coaches we spoke with expect Frost to be the choice. In firing Helfrich Mullens appears to be looking for a fresh start, not more of the same.
Harsin is in a rhythm at Boise, one he can maintain for a long time. Coaches we have spoken with aren't so sure the upside is worth the risk associated with this move.
Baldwin is an interesting option as he would check a lot of boxes. But most of the coaches we've spoken with believe Mullens has set his sights higher before deciding to make a move on Helfrich.
As for Holgorsen, his experience at West Virginia directly parallels what Oregon's next coach will have to do -- convince play-makers from sunshine states (Florida at WVU, California at Oregon) to head up north. If you can do that at West Virginia, you can do it at Oregon. An issue, though, is that Holgo's son is the starting quarterback at Morgantown High (a junior we believe). We hear Dana's family life is pretty settled in West Virginia and moving cross country at this time might not be the best timing.
And no Oregon article would be complete without discussion of Chip. Could this happen? Eh, maybe. Do we expect it to happen? Eh, not really. First of all the timing is not good (49ers have a lot of football left to play). Second, Chip loves the NFL lifestyle. With Phil Knight involved we won't say "no chance" but we really don't imagine this happening.
As always, stay tuned to The Scoop for the latest.